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"Somebody" - new Brando bio

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*The Lion of the Screen, and What Made Him Roar*




He was famous for wearing a T-shirt and jeans decades before it became the default uniform of every Hollywood and Silicon Valley worker bee.


He mumbled a lot and was often silent when you expected him to talk, but there was a drama to those pauses and a raw, animal physicality to his every move. When he was young, his beauty was a magnet to women and men alike, but it was his willingness to expose his own tortured conflicts in his work ? his vulnerability and anger, his na?vet? and brooding melancholy ? that made millions of strangers enshrine him as a symbol of a new, rebellious generation, sick of the correct poses and posturings of the past and committed to an unvarnished authenticity and emotional truth.


He was hailed as the ?Byron from Brooklyn? (though he was from Nebraska, not New York), a ?genius hunk,? ?the Valentino of the bop generation? and the essence of ?the primitive modern male.? John Huston said he was ?like a furnace door opening? ? so powerful was the heat he gave off. Eva Marie Saint said he had the ability ?to see through you? and make you feel ?like glass.? Jack Nicholson said he had a gift that ?was enormous and flawless, like Picasso?: he ?was the beginning and end of his own revolution.? Of course, Marlon Brando was not the end of the revolution he brought to acting. Mr. Nicholson, along with James Dean, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio are all his heirs, and to watch the movies made before and after such iconic Brando films as ?A Streetcar Named Desire? and ?On the Waterfront? is to see a paradigm shift from the heightened, stylized theatricality of old-time Hollywood to the immediate, intimate and gut-churning world of the Method.




After those totemic early movies, Brando would lose his way, making a series of poor career choices and increasingly giving in to his own demons of denial, self-indulgence and laziness. He reminded audiences of his galvanic power as an actor in ?The Godfather? and ?Last Tango in Paris,? but he also made many bad movies, and he would fall prey to catty tabloid reporters and gossip mongers, who wanted to dwell on his weight, his emotional outbursts, his multiple marriages and troubled children instead of his achievements on the screen.


Stefan Kanfer?s new biography of Brando, ?Somebody,? is an antidote of sorts to the unsavory and voyeuristic 1994 biography written by Peter Manso, who focused on the actor?s personal difficulties ? his eccentricities, his many affairs and his often capricious behavior ? in voluminous and unseemly detail. Mr. Kanfer, who wrote an estimable biography of Groucho Marx in 2000, focuses here on Brando?s work, and while the reader may wish that he?d devoted more space to pivotal films like ?Streetcar,? ?Waterfront,? ?The Wild One? and ?The Godfather? and less space to such forgettable ones as ?Sayonara? and ?The Ugly American,? he does a solid job of describing Brando?s preparation for various roles and evoking the often tortuous route such projects took on their way to the screen.


To prepare for the role of a paralyzed war veteran in ?The Men,? Mr. Kanfer tells us, Brando checked into the Birmingham Veterans Hospital near Los Angeles, ?learned how to live in a wheelchair, wear heavy leg braces, rely only on his arms for movement,? and he picked up from the patients there ?a tough, ironic humor drained of lament and self pity.?


To prepare for the title role in ?Viva Zapata!? he traveled down to Sonora, Mexico, in the company of his pet raccoon, Russell, to observe peasant life for himself, talking with people who still remembered meeting that revolutionary.


And to prepare for the role of Vito Corleone in ?The Godfather,? he ?got himself invited to the home of a well-placed Mafioso in New Jersey,? where at a dinner for some 40 people, he took mental notes on the ?exaggerated politesse? they showed to a stranger, the ?manner in which powerful dons spoke in quiet voices; the way the men went out of their way to be gracious to their women, but also how they kept them in secondary roles.?


Mr. Kanfer describes the tensions on ?Guys and Dolls? that developed between Brando and Frank Sinatra, who played Nathan Detroit in that musical instead of the romantic lead, Sky Masterson, which he reportedly wanted and which went to Brando instead. Sinatra also seems to have resented the younger actor for nabbing the role of Terry Malloy in ?Waterfront? away from him.


In another chapter Mr. Kanfer describes the antipathy between Brando and Sophia Loren on the set of ?A Countess From Hong Kong,? which got so bad that the movie?s director, Charlie Chaplin, had to keep reminding them that it was a love story when they ?each clasped the other as if embracing a werewolf.?


Unlike Richard Schickel and Patricia Bosworth, who each wrote slim, illuminating books about Brando, Mr. Kanfer doesn?t serve up any particularly new or original takes on the actor. His biography remains indebted to those earlier works, and even more heavily reliant on Brando?s quirky but vivid 1994 memoir, ?Songs My Mother Taught Me.?


As Brando did in that volume, Mr. Kanfer emphasizes the debilitating fallout that the actor?s childhood had on his emotional constitution and his difficulty in transcending that early damage. He suggests that the sense of abandonment the actor felt as a boy ? his mother retreated into drink, his beloved nanny left him to get married ? resulted in a fear of rejection, which frequently led him to pursue simultaneous affairs with multiple women.


As for his father?s continual put-downs, they left Brando with a defiant attitude toward authority figures (like directors) and a self-loathing that inhibited his ability to enjoy his early success and fostered a deep ambivalence about the vocation he would help transform.


In ?Songs? Brando recalled how his emotional insecurity as a child gave him a reservoir of intense emotions to draw upon as an actor. ?It also gave me a capacity to mimic,? he wrote, ?because when you are a child who is unwanted or unwelcome, and the essence of what you are seems to be unacceptable, you look for an identity that will be acceptable. Usually this identity is found in faces you are talking to. You make a habit of studying people, finding out the way they talk, the answers that they give and their points of view; then, in a form of self-defense, you reflect what?s on their faces and how they act because most people like to see reflections of themselves.?


If ?you want something from an audience,? he said on another occasion, ?you give blood to their fantasies. It?s the ultimate hustle.?

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